Enjoyment and The Serious Business of Keeping It Fun

Chris Pomfret explores the common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success.

Fun and enjoyment are key mental skills for peak performance
Fun and enjoyment are key mental skills for peak performance

A common misconception regarding elite sport is that there is an inverse relationship between enjoyment and success. In other words, the higher up the ranks an athlete climbs, the more ‘serious’ things need to become in order to reach the pinnacle in their chosen sport. Or to put it another way, the pure joy a child experiences running/throwing/kicking/riding in their local park will eventually get lost as their passion becomes just a job. However, elite athletes are inevitably instructed to “just have some fun” or to “relax and enjoy yourself” during times of hardship or pressure or form slumps. You can imagine how confusing this must be for the athlete: one minute they are meant to be ‘all business’ and the next it’s ‘party time’. The implication here is that it should be easy to simply tap into the pleasure that (hopefully) caused them to pursue the sport in the first place. But how many top-level athletes – or athletes at any level, for that matter – practice the ‘fun factor’ along with all their physical training and technical skill development?

In terms of enjoyment as a concept, here are a few quick reflection points regardless of where you currently sit on your sporting journey:

Try to describe why you do what you do. What drew you in to it in the first place? What is keeping you there? Why do you want to continue? Why is it important for you to perform well?

Enjoyment involves fun (things that simply feel good and put a smile on your face) as well as deeper concepts like achievement, pride, satisfaction, growth and progress.

Usain Bolt was a great example of someone who enjoyed what he did. He worked incredibly hard so that when a competition came around he could have some fun, execute the skills he had been developing over many years, and celebrate his love of running. Enjoyment doesn’t mean we are always smiling and laughing, but we need to stay in touch with the things we love about our sport (or art or music or business or other performance area).

As with any concept in sport, quantification is essential. When we quantify something we put structures, values and measurements to it. If you can describe something you can start to understand it, which means you can start to improve it. Enjoyment is typically a vague concept and you could use the term ‘fun’ many times in conversation with your coach, for example, without actually talking about the same thing. Fun to one person could be fitness-related, while for someone else it’s beating people, while for another there’s a certain aspect of feeling a social connection, while for another they appreciate learning new technical skills. If we take Usain Bolt in his athletics career and imagine that we were his coach: how could we possibly make running more fun during times of hardship if we don’t even know what it is that he enjoys about running? It’s the same idea with other key concepts like ‘worry’, ‘stress’, ‘focus’, ‘fitness’, ‘tactics’, ‘pressure’… the list goes on. If you can put names/numbers/amounts/categories to something, you can improve it.

Regardless of your age or skill level, one relatively simple means of quantifying your experiences is to break things down into the following domains:

  • Mind, which includes thoughts (the words and pictures in my head), attitudes (the general ways I am looking at things), and beliefs (how I view myself, others, the future, and the world).
  • Feelings (your emotional energy and how intense it is).
  • Body (the messages you are receiving physically from head to toe).
  • 5 senses (what your attention is drawn towards in the areas of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste).
  • Actions (what you are doing, what you’ve stopped doing, things you are speeding up or slowing down, doing more of or less of etc.).

Because enjoyment is a personal experience there are no universal rules to reignite your passion for the game. In a practical sense, however, you might benefit from any of the following:

  • Rewarding yourself with fun non-sporting activities before and after training/practice.
  • Creating small windows of pleasure and light-heartedness during practices (e.g. arriving early to mess around with teammates, or getting pumped up during certain segments of training such as racing people in fitness drills).
  • Indulging yourself in relaxing or fun or special non-sporting activities on the morning of competitions to take your mind away from the event as much as possible.
  • Emphasising interactions and activities with your teammates or peers after competitions to enhance a sense of community.
  • Occasionally overlooking any objectives/targets you set for yourself within competitions (e.g. if you have any key performance indicators) and focusing on the thrill of movement and skill execution.
  • Looking over your season schedule and breaking it into chunks with challenging objectives for each competition. Any tangible evidence of improvement can be celebrated as a reward for your dedication and passion.
  • Glance at your weekly schedule and check that you have enough balance between sporting and non-sporting activities. It’s particularly important that you emphasise the ‘Lifestyle Choices’ pillar of performance (see the excellent aeroplane analogy from Metuf – Online Mental Toughness Training for more about ‘Lifestyle Choices’). This can include areas in your life such as sleep, family, friendships, hobbies, leisure time, stress management and so on.

Enjoyment – and in particular a sense of fun – may not be as easily defined as other core components of performance such as physical capabilities, technical consistency or tactical wisdom. However, if you are able to conceptualise what you love about your chosen sport and take steps to improve upon this you will give yourself every chance of climbing towards the top and staying there.